Lalit Sheth (inset)
From scaling the highest highs and then plunging into unfathomable depths, Lalit Sheth has seen it all. But when he saw his painfully constructed empire of Raj Travels crumble, he ended the debt-ridden years by leaping into the Arabian Sea on July 31, the very same depths that he walked past, every morning. Even as the travel industry is abuzz with rumours that threats from loan sharks drove the Raj Travels founder to take the leap and the police are investigating call records, Sheth’s son Akash has quietly occupied his father’s sparsely furnished room at the Chowpatty office.
Within three decades since he left his home in Kolkata to come to Mumbai as an ambitious 20-year-old, Sheth went on to become the doyen of the Indian travel industry. In the 56 years of his life, marked by dizzying success and crumbling losses, the Kolkata-born entrepreneur pioneered a new tourism movement, took the Indian traveller to corners of the world that they hadn’t seen before and added a list of ‘firsts’ to his name.
The pioneer of travel-with-the-chef movement took the strictly vegetarian Gujarati fare across travel destinations from Philippines to Prague, introduced new tourism spots for package tours and went on to become the uncrowned king of the Indian travel industry for almost two decades. But it all came crashing down after an aborted flight in the skies and a failed ride in the luxury bus business.
Termed a ‘visionary’, ‘fighter’ and a man ahead of his times by colleagues and competitors alike, Sheth revolutionised the way Indians travelled. When first-time tourists craved for home-cooked vegetarian food in foreign lands, he carried the maharajs or cooks to dish out comforting Gujarati food. When air taxi licenses opened in 1992, he took to the skies with Raj Air with a princely sum of Rs 5 crore.
When pan-India connectivity was the buzzword, he kickstarted yet another futuristic idea; he plied 104 customised luxury coaches on the lines of the American intercity Greyhound services and introduced online bus bookings for the first time in India in 2006. “He played a pioneering role in the industry and was far ahead of other players in the market. He was one of the few tour operators who could generate numbers even in times of a slowdown and that was because of his unique offerings and marketing strategies,” says Subhash Motwani, Director, Compact Tours in Mumbai.
Sheth’s creative genius and marketing acumen showed up ever too often. If portable television sets on long haul train journeys were the highlight of his tours in the early eighties, full-page advertisements in newspapers tempted the vegetarian travellers with promises of Paris ma Patra and Rome ma Ras-puri. Simply put, it appealed to the Indian traveller who had the resources and the desire to travel but craved for home food, in Tokyo or Toronto.
The fire in the belly started early, perhaps prompted by the struggle-filled teenage years. He lost his father, a consultant at a tea plantation, when he was just 13 and had to don the mantle of the breadwinner for his ailing mother and two younger brothers. At 20, Sheth came to Mumbai to find his fortunes with Rs 1200 in his pocket. His business idea: a chemist’s shop. While nursing his ailing parents, he had frequented drug stores and noticed that this was one shop where people never bargained or argued. But with nothing more than Rs 1200, he trashed the capital intensive business. Never one to accept failure easily, Sheth swiftly moved on to the next best thing he knew – organising tours for students, something he had done briefly as a student at JJ Ajmera High School in Kolkata. Starting from a 70 sq feet rented office space at Masjid Bunder, Sheth embarked on his journey as a tour operator, a business that made him the uncrowned king of travel in India.
His first ever tour to Kashmir was sold out in a week. He offered what no one else had dreamt of – train reservations, his own cooks in hotels and portable TV sets on the train. He soon spread his wings to international shores with a tour to Bangkok in 1980, with a maharaj and masalas in tow. With loyal customers firmly in place and new travellers joining in, he opened new destinations like Japan, Philippines and European countries like Germany and Sweden to package tour travellers. “He unofficially became the official tour operator of the Gujarati community, as he took Gujarat across the world,” says Motwani. The cooks went everywhere, often stationed at hotel kitchens, taking Indian cuisine to new shores. “He created holidays keeping his own family in mind, which played a major role in the success of the model,” says son Akash, 31, a businessman. A stickler for perfection, Sheth personally explored every new destination before launching a tour, making sure that the comforts were just right for a family holiday.
If his aggressive marketing skills showed up in his advertisements where he fearlessly compared his offerings to those of competitors – a practice which saw a few legal cases against him – his affinity for adventure and risks came to the fore when he launched Raj Air in 1992 with an investment of Rs 5 crore. He took off with three aircrafts leased from Dornier and Fokker on five routes. Within three years, Sheth cracked a deal with P Rajratnam, a businessman, to sell the company for Rs 23 crore. Rajratnam’s cheques bounced and with this, Sheth’s fortunes, for the first time, started sliding.
But his often quoted resilience showed up once again and Sheth took his travel company to new heights, employing various strategies to draw in numbers. If others took tourists to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, he scaled up to the third. “He was the only domestic operator to take on competition from international names like Thomas Cook and Cox and Kings who had far more money, but he did it successfully,” says an industry veteran. Sheth collected accolades and over 200 awards along the way, including the title of the Best Quality Tour Operator by BBC World in 2008. As Raj Travel World touched dizzying success with over 400 tour departures every year, the “highly ambitious” Sheth-as peers called him-ventured into what most say was a futuristic concept-luxury bus tours. At an investment of over Rs 100 crore, he sourced 104 customised coaches, each costing Rs 80 lakh. Along with the coaches came new concepts like waiting lounges, online bookings, personalised headphones and a network of 200 routes. The concept failed and the debts mounted to a whopping Rs 147 crore by 2008. “That was the biggest hit we took. We didn’t even know if we’d survive,” admits Akash.
However, unlike the earlier years, bouncing back proved to be a challenge this time. Falling back on the core travel business wasn’t a cakewalk as Indians started travelling differently-customised vacations and off-beat experiences. The market downturn saw the business and Sheth fall into further gloom. But even as the pressures mounted, Sheth continued to face the world with a smile. “He put on a smile as soon as he stepped into the house no matter what stress he was under while at work,” recalls Akash. His de-stress mantra was playing with his four-year-old granddaughter Zara. “Even when he was facing adversities in business, he continued to give tips and advice to new players; such was his magnanimity,” says Motwani. His composure and positivity reflected in his motivational posts on Facebook, which his 3,585 friends on the social networking site lapped up. “He kept pace with the times; six months back, he started using BBM to keep in touch with people; he was an excellent communicator,” recalls a friend.
Even as the success saw his son step into the business of luxury goods and event management, Sheth preferred the simple life, shunning luxury brands and fancy cars. A Sunday brunch with the family, books and the latest releases at Metro and INOX with wife Rekha were among his few indulgences. His routine was disciplined; he woke up at 5 am, took seven-kilometer-long walk, read eight newspapers every morning before heading to office at Chowpatty impeccably dressed in dark suits. “He always remained in touch with his modest beginnings,” says Akash, adding that the family patriarch often went vegetable-shopping to the local market on Sunday mornings.
If he was an aggressive businessman, Sheth was also a warm friend and a generous mentor, offering tips to new players even as he coped with adversities and losses. Only a few months ago, Sheth had put up a motivational post on his Facebook page saying ‘Negative attitude is like a flat tyre; change it.’ “He had this unique capability of weathering the storm and came up with innovative solutions to every problem,” says Motwani. Which is why those who knew him well still wonder what prompted the final plunge into the sea.